Tips for Writing Mysteries

By Laura Backes, Children's Book Insider

Mysteries are very popular with middle grade readers. They are generally fast-paced stories that build self-confidence by allowing the reader to solve the crime. Simple mysteries for this age group follow a clear formula where the author lays out clues for the reader in a predictable fashion, using escapes, setbacks and coincidence. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books fall into this category.

As readers become adept at solving mysteries, they reach for books that require careful scrutiny to discern clues. Goody Hall by Natalie Babbitt and Mystery of Drear House by Virginia Hamilton are good examples. The following are tips to keep in mind when writing mysteries for children.

* Unlike other types of children's books, the child protagonist in a mystery does not go through major character development during the story. His or her character must be strong at the beginning of the book, and have qualities the reader will identify with or admire. However, one of the protagonist's character traits (such as having a photographic memory) can be used to solve the mystery, as long as the readers know about it.

* Another difference between mysteries and other types of fiction is that in mysteries there is little or no underlying theme to the story (such as loneliness, peer pressure, etc.). The plot drives the story, and the conflict and tension is derived from what happens to the main characters from without, rather than what's going on inside themselves.

* The child in the story must be as smart, or smarter, than the adults. Adults can help in certain situations in order to make the story believable, but the child must uncover the major clues and solve the case.

* The clues to the crime, as well as the crime itself, must be accessible to children in real life in order for the story to be realistic. This also helps the reader solve the mystery. A child would not know, for example, how someone could alter the brakes on a car, but he or she could probably figure out how this was done to a bicycle.

* The reader must have access to all the clues available to the protagonist. It's not fair for the author to withhold information.

* It helps if the author rehashes the entire crime and rounds up all the clues at the end of the story. Often this is done by the protagonist summarizing the crime to another character right before solving the case. This will remind readers of the clues, and give them a better chance of coming up with the solution on their own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Backes is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at

Copyright 2001, Children's Book Insider, LLC.
Reprinted with permission.

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